This article was first published in “an tAtlantach”. Reissued here with the kind permission of the author and an tAtlantach
Author: Dr James Patrick Keating
At 03:40am on 15 August 1949 Valentia Radio received a report from the British trawler Stalberg which had been fishing off the Aran Islands in the West of Ireland;
“Airplane down in Galway Bay, am searching your area”
The subsequent co-ordination of air, sea and land assets resulted in the miraculous rescue of almost all crew and passengers of a Transocean Air lines flight from Rome to Shannon. The drama that unfolded was one of bravery, outstanding skill by the pilots and dogged persistence by the rescuers both at helm and in cockpit.
In 1949 Europe was rebuilding after the destruction of World War 2. Displaced persons were picking up the pieces of their lives and one group of Italian emigrants sought refuge in South America far from their homeland. Despite putting the ravages of war behind them this group of Italians were to suffer one more calamity. A Transocean Air lines Douglas DC-4, otherwise known as a Douglas Skymaster was chartered by the International Refugee Organisation to be their transport to a new life in Caracas, Venezuela. On the 15th August 1949 they began the first leg of their journey from Rome to Shannon, which lies on the wild Atlantic west coast of Ireland. At the time Shannon was a major stop-over for most transatlantic flights.
The 49 passengers that day consisted of 47 Italians immigrants and 2 American employees of Transocean Air Lines. The crew consisted of 9 Americans; Captain Edward Bessey of Connecticut was an experienced airman with 19 years of service. He was supported by an equally experienced crew; 1st Officer Richard Hall, Flight Navigator James A. Bauman, 2nd Officer John W. Moore, Radio Officers Robert D. Thomas and Herbert Ashbell, purser Ralph H. Fisher and stewardess Luigia Cerabona who was fluent in Italian. The 9th crew member was Ruth Nichols who had taken the flight from Rome at short notice in an effort to circumnavigate the globe on a humanitarian mission She was listed as a stewardess on the manifest but had no official duties that day.
Miss Ruth Nichols had been an aviation pioneer in the 1930s and 1940s (or an Aviatrix as some newspapers of the time claimed!). As a female pilot she had set American speed records, competed in the London-Melbourne international air race and attempted to be the first woman to cross the Atlantic. She herself had suffered 3 major crashes during her aviation career; in 1931 during a 2000 mile flight from California to Kentucky, again in 1932 when she flew along with President Hoover’s election tour and in 1935 when she was badly injured in a plane crash in New York. This last crash was meant to be an airborne wedding for two couples but ended in the death of the other pilot. Earlier in her career she established an organisation for female licenced pilots called the ‘Ninety Nines’, which included none other than Amelia Earhart. Miss Nichols was along on this trip as part of a world-wide tour, using her fame to garner public support for humanitarian causes.
On the same night, the Grimsby registered trawler Stalberg had just arrived at the fishing grounds west of the Aran Islands under command of captain Alfred Stanley Brown from Consolidated Fisheries Ltd. She was built by Cochrane & Sons in Selby in 1929. Her triple expansion engines chugging along under 200lbs of pressure meant the Stalberg was an efficient and industrious trawler. This was proven when she landed a record 1,380 boxes of hake at Swansea in April 1946. During the war years she was requisitioned by the Admiralty as a Boom Defence Vessel. That night as the Stalberg waited for daylight to begin fishing, Tim Harrington from Castletownbere was on watch at the helm with the First Officer. He had likely signed onto the Stalberg at Castletownbere where several British steam trawler fleets were based at the time. The captain had decided to wait until the morning to begin trawling as he wanted to take an accurate bearing in order to avoid entanglement with the known wrecks in the area. Below deck snoozing were 22 year old Swansea man Gordon Sheffers and the rest of the crew, getting whatever rest they could before the physical work of trawling began.
Also in the area was the Irish registered cargo steamer Lanahrone which was owned by the Limerick Steam Ship Company. Lanahrone was built in 1928 and had a single screw engine capable of 12 knots. She was sailing the Antwerp to Galway route and was just off Loop Head early in that morning. The Lanahrone may have been known to some men aboard the Stalberg as she made regular trips between Castletownbere and Swansea in the 1920s and 30s shipping shipping copper ore from the Allihies mines to Swansea and salt mackerel to America via Liverpool. Lanahrone was no stranger to drama at sea as we will discover later.
According to a flight clearance document declared to Rome Air Traffic control the initial route of the Transocean Air Lines Skymaster was to Marseille, then onto Paris before setting course for Shannon. Weather that night was clear with light to moderate winds forecast for the duration of the flight. Captain Bessey arrived at the air strip in Rome 30 minutes late and to save time he divided the standard pre-flight duties with the flight crew. This included preparing a weight and balance manifest, computing a flight plan, estimating fuel requirements and choosing an alternative airport should conditions not be suitable to land at Shannon (which was Paris in this instance). This plan required somewhere between 14-16 hours of fuel to satisfy the fuel hungry Skymaster. However after further investigation it was discovered the plane only had fuel for 11 hours on board. This would not pass regulation as Transocean Air Lines required all flight plans to meet a consumption rate of 200 gallons per hour. Captain Bessey decided that due to good flying conditions that day and to save time, they would skip the Marseille – Paris leg and take a direct course from Rome to Shannon. Instead of using Paris as a back-up landing site, Bessey choose Dublin, further easing the fuel requirements and bringing the flight plan into regulatory compliance.
With 2,200 gallons of fuel onboard the Skymaster took off from Rome at 16:08h. Shortly after Captain Bessey retired to the crew quarters and left his first officer in command. The Skymaster passed Marseille at 18:20h and was over Rennes at 20:50h. As it passed the coastline of France the Skymaster was 15 miles behind schedule and perhaps more importantly was 15 miles west of her scheduled route. Bessey returned to the cockpit and the First Officer attempted to fix their position using the LORAN system which utilised radio signals from Brest. Simultaneously the flight navigator used celestial methods to gain a fix. Using these modern and traditional methods they estimated the flight to be south of the Cherbourg peninsula. With this information the navigator calculated they would arrive in Shannon at 23:45h.
As per the flight plan, Captain Edwards descended to 3,500 feet and made preparations to land at Shannon. These preparations included stowing the navigation equipment safely. By 00:15h on the 14th August there was no sign of Shannon airport. Unknown to the crew, the Transocean Air Lines Skymaster had passed the Irish coastline around 23:00h and was now flying out into the Atlantic and quickly running out of fuel.
Ditching into the Atlantic
As the crew began to realize the gravity of their situation the first officer attempted to fix their position using the LORAN, however at this stage they were out of range to get a robust fix for Shannon. At 00:45h the crew estimated they had overflown Shannon by 175 miles in a northwesterly bearing. 5 minutes later upon his navigator’s recommendation Captain Bessey turned the aircraft and took a bearing of 130°. At approximately 01:05h the Skymaster was finally able to raise the Shannon Air-Sea Rescue frequency. Bessey had only 90 minutes fuel left and was hopelessly lost.
The radio operators at Shannon were able to contact two TWA planes which were fortunately in the area. The first captained by Charlie Adams managed to get close enough to guide the Skymaster back in the right direction. However with only 15 minutes to the safety of the Shannon all hopes were dashed when the 4 big engines cut out. Out of options, Captain Bessey glided the plane down towards the sea and braced for impact
Nearby on the Stalberg Tim Harrington and the first mate stood watch in the wheelhouse. In the distance they heard the rumble of an aircraft engine, as it grew louder Gordon Sheffers and his crewmates rushed on deck in time to see the plane fly over. They watched as the lights dropped lower to the sea and disappear in the distance. At 02:40h, the Transocean Air Lines Skymaster ditched into the cold Atlantic waters, 7 miles west of Lurga point on the Clare Coast.
At 0303h on August 15th 1949, Shannon Airport sent a distress message to Valentia Radio station;
“Aircraft in the water 2 miles from mainland off Kilkee bound for Shannon but no official steps as yet please wait for official message”
The ditching was almost perfectly executed. The two American passengers claimed the crash landing was so smooth that they were not even thrown from their seats. The plane remained afloat for approximately 15 minutes, long enough for the crew to assist the passengers off the plane and into all but one of the life rafts. Luigia Cerabona, the Italian speaking stewardess was vital in getting the passengers into the liferafts in an orderly manner as she translated orders to the shocked passengers. Unfortunately in the darkness and confusion 7 of the passengers misunderstood the commands and jumped into the sea. In the moderate swell, typical for the western seaboard, the tail section detached and struck the radio operator Herbert Asbel as he leapt from the fuselage.
Shortly after the crash the second TWA airliner (Flight 917) passed overhead having earlier been informed by Shannon of the drama unfolding in the area. On this night Captain Arby Arbuthnot was in command of a routine Atlantic crossing and without hesitation adjusted his flight path to offer any assistance he could. As he approached he recalls seeing the landing lights or flares of the ditched plane. His navigator got an accurate fix of the wreckage. The darkness prevented Flight 917 from assisting further and Captain Arbuthnot proceeded to Shannon to refuel, discharge his passengers and return as soon as possible. The survivors were once again alone in the darkness.
At 0340h the Stalberg contacted Valentia station:
“Airplane down in Galway Bay, am searching your area”
The crew had awoken the captain who ordered full steam ahead for the location of the Skymaster. Gordon Sheffers recalled the trawler had just come out of dry dock before this fishing trip which meant the hull had been cleaned. This easily gave the ship an extra knot or two in speed which is crucial when survival in the harsh Atlantic comes down to a matter of minutes. Stalberg struggled to find the wreckage, liferafts or survivors initially and reportedly passed between two life rafts without sighting either.
Volunteers from the Order of Malta await the arrival of survivors and bodies at Galway Docks (British Movietone News, 1949).
At 04:24h it became apparent that Stalberg had limited radio equipment and could only communicate with the searching aircraft by relaying messages through Valentia Coast Guard. Between 04:26 and 05:10h, the trawler, TWA airliner and Valentia relayed messages to direct the search effort and at 05:10h Captain Arbuthnot finally sighted the life-rafts. Seeing them dangerously overloaded, Captain Arbuthnot passed overhead at about 100 feet and ordered his crew to drop a life-raft from the rear doors. Unfortunately the life raft did not activate and “sunk like a rock”.
At 05:14h under full steam in the general direction of the wreckage, Captain Brown on the Stalberg requested the circling airliner to drop some flares to direct them to the life-rafts. 10 minutes later he sighted the first life rafts. Over the next half hour the Stalberg deployed her own life boat to pick up the cold and shocked survivors. As they emptied each life-raft, Captain Arbuthnot would direct them to the next by diving his plane towards the survivors. This type of low level, slow speed flying is extremely dangerous and required amazing skill. The Stalberg had some trouble lifting the casualties back on-board and damaged her davit (winch for deploying lifeboats) in the process.
By 05:43h Gordon Sheffers, Tim Harrington and their crewmates had assisted 36 or 37 people on board, including the lifeless body of the radio-operator Herbert Asbel. Gordon Sheffer recalled the large gash on his head as they pulled him in. Valentia Radio was informed that the survivors were suffering severely from shock and hypothermia and suggested they sail to Kilronan on the Aran Islands to pick up a doctor then proceed to Galway. However the circling aircraft had spotted another life raft and again directed the trawler to the position, this time using a Verey pistol (also known as a flare gun).
By 07:30h, the steamship Lanahrone along with the Fenit and Kilronan volunteer lifeboat services had arrived on scene. Stalberg had worked diligently and with 49 survivors and 2 bodies she handed over the job of recovering the dead. Sheffers and his crewmates ushered the survivors below deck to the warmth of the stoker room, but with 49 of them down there they could hardly move. The crew divided their spare clothes up and handed them out to the Italians. The Captain told Valentia he had 4 women on board.
At 08:04h, Captain Arbuthnot was stood down as the RAF had now arrived with a search plane. With an exhausted crew he made one last pass over the scene and his navigator took a number of photographs. The Lanahrone and the lifeboats from Fenit and Kilronan continued to scour the area for the bodies and wreckage.
Volunteers from the Civil Defence await the arrival of survivors and bodies at Galway Docks (British Movietone News, 1949).
By 11:00h the Lanahrone had found the remaining bodies and towed them behind the ship in their own life raft. There was some confusion as one body was seemingly unaccounted for so the ship remained in the area searching for a few more hours. It is unclear from the available documents if this person was found or was due to a miscount.
Around 1300h the Stalberg arrived in Galway. A large crowd lined the quayside, including volunteers from the Red Cross, Order of Malta and Civil Defence. A major emergency had been called and the hospital was prepared for the large influx of casualties which were transported by a fleet of ambulances. As expected for the time bottles of whiskey were collected and tots given to the now slightly warmer survivors who had ditched 11 hours previously. Gordon Sheffers managed to acquire a bottle of gin but when he poured glasses for his mates below deck they realised he had inadvertently taken a bottle of water intended to soften the whiskey for the Italians. News reporters filmed the Stalberg arriving and later followed the excitement to the hospital where they filmed the Galway people donating new clothes to the Italian emigrants who had lost all their worldly possessions. Later the Lanahrone dropped anchor at Mutton Island and hoisted her sad cargo onboard before making for the docks in Galway.
An Italian survivor at Galway Hospital. (The man’s identification documents are drying on the windowsill )(British Movietone News, 1949).
On January 15th 2009 a US Airways Airbus A320 ditched safely into the River Hudson in New York after hitting a flock of geese. Amazingly no one was killed. Later the entire crew were awarded numerous citations for heroism and even gifted the ‘Keys to New York City’. The damaged Airframe is on permanent display in the Carolinas aviation museum and the story has been immortalized in movie, documentary and song. The pilot that day was named in Time Magazine’s “100 Most Influential Heroes and Icons”. 60 years prior to the “Miracle on the Hudson”, the outstanding skill of Captain Bessey and his crew that night went more or less unnoticed.
Furthermore the scale of the rescue effort was on a level not often seen at the time. The Valentia Coastguard and Shannon Air-Sea Rescue had successfully coordinated 2 American TWA aircraft, 1 British trawler, 1 Irish steamship, 2 local lifeboats, a British RAF plane, a doctor on the Aran Islands and had initiated an emergency response onshore in Galway which included state and voluntary assets such as the Civil Defence and Red Cross. It is likely the passengers and crew would have succumbed to exposure within a few hours had this remarkable co-operation not been achieved. Fortunately some of the footage that night has been immortalised into a Movietone newsreel and offers a rare insight into a search and rescue operation from the 1940s.
When the dust had settled on this incident, the mandatory investigation found the pilot and crew in error for this catastrophe. The Transocean Air Lines Skymaster was too low on fuel to begin with to offer enough redundancy, they lost their position and the tragic loss of life could only be attributed to human error. Thus the outstanding skill of landing a large, powerless airliner in the ocean without a higher loss of life has never been credited to the pilot and the subsequent evidence of the search and rescue effort by sea and air has largely been forgotten. I have not been able to find out much about the fate of the Italian survivors but I believe they flew from Shannon for South America shortly after and rebuilt their lives after the mayhem of World War 2.
The Transocean Skymaster was a reliable four-engined transport plane with a strong military pedigree and became a workhorse in commercial aviation. The plane in this story had the designation C-54A. The ‘A’ indicated the variant was one of the first military models to have a strengthened airframe, increased fuel capacity and capabilities for passengers or cargo. During 364 recorded Douglas DC-4 crashes, 19% of all occupants survived, which in retrospect is quite a high survival rate. Only 2 years previous to Captain Besseys ditching, another C-54A landed in the Pacific with only 35 out of 42 surviving. No doubt these statistics and stories were discussed in pilot lounges around the world. This may have made a significant difference in the successful ditching event but without the skill of Captain Bessey and his crew many more would surely have perished.
Captain Arbuthnot returned to Shannon and picked up his passengers from earlier. They then proceeded to their original destination in Paris. Upon arriving they realised the photos taken by the navigator were newsworthy so they contacted an agency in Paris and sold the images. The photograph of the Stalberg picking up survivors was printed on the New York Daily Mirror and the profit was enough to take the crew out for a night on the town in Paris to celebrate their efforts that night. Later the President of Transocean Air Lines wired a telegraph to the TWA thanking the crew for their assistance. Captain Arbuthnot passed away in 2004.
The Captain and crew of TWA flight 917 taken upon landing in Paris. Photographed are Arbuthnot, Cole, Sawyer, Cutler, Williams, Lowery, Halbert, Jones, Nightwine and Burke (reproduced in Tarpa Tales, 1984)
After making repairs to the lifeboat and davit which was damaged during the rescue Captain Brown and The Stalberg returned to the fishing grounds. After 3 weeks of trawling and with a hold full of fish she returned to land their fish back in her home port of Grimsby. When they arrived they were finally given the congratulations they deserved and were treated to a dinner and drinks at the ‘Number 10 Bar’ in Swansea, a popular drinking spot for mariners. Furthermore, the owner of the Bar who had been a friend of Captain Brown treated the crew and their wives were given tickets for the Grand Theatre.
In an earlier article I described the herring fishery in Galway bay and the advent of steam trawlers. Indeed British trawlers were not uncommon in this part of Ireland. Crew member Gordon Scheffers was interviewed in 2014 in relation to the MH370 disaster that was unfolding and described his role in the rescue. At the time of this interview he was aged 87 and living in Bonymaen in Wales however I have been unable to find contact details for this gentleman. Tim Harrington married and settled in Swansea where he died some years later. In 1957, 8 years after rescuing the passengers and crew of the Transocean Air Lines Skymaster the Stalberg was laid up and later scrapped due to the age of her boilers and the cost of replacing them. Today, the thriving fishing fleet of Grimsby is a shadow of its former self. In the 1950s it was claimed to be the largest fishing port in the world. While Grimsby still operates as a market today almost 70% of her fish is delivered via containers from Iceland.
The Stalberg is seen picking up survivors from a life raft. This photo was taken by the navigator on TWA Flight 917 that assisted in the rescue operation (Courtesy of Tarpa Times)
As mentioned earlier, the captain and crew of Lanahrone were no strangers to disaster. In August 1940 the Lanahrone sighted a life raft west of Ireland while on passage from Gibraltar to Glasgow. She picked up 18 survivors from the Goatland of Whitby which had been sunk by aircraft two days earlier while sailing from West Africa to Manchester. In 1941 she was part of the infamous wartime convoy OG71 which left Liverpool for Gibraltar. (for more on convoy OG71 (Nightmare Convoy), click here This convoy suffered several U-Boat attacks and was the only convoy of the war not to reach its destination. 10 ships went down with over 400 lives. As a neutral ship, the Lanahrone did not have the black-out equipment available to the allies and she eventually retreated to Portugal. A crew strike during this port call was later resolved when the Limerick Steamship Company supplied extra life rafts and survival equipment.
In 1944 on a voyage from New York to England, the Lanahrone picked up the survivors of a Boeing B17 that ditched into the sea 140 miles southwest of Ireland. The plane had become lost during a trans-Atlantic flight. The B17 circled until they spotted the ship and broke radio silence to make contact. Lanahrone responded with a pre-agreed codeword specified for that day which confirmed her neutral status. The pilot decided to ditch and the crew were subsequently picked up by the ship which transported them to England.
In 1946 just 6 miles off the Welsh coastline she received an SOS message from a British submarine the Universal. The submarine had sunk 40,000t of enemy shipping during the war but was now foundering in bad weather. Lanahrone relayed the message and stood by to assist until a British destroyer took the submarine safely under tow. These incidents gave the captain and crew valuable experience operating a rescue mission which no doubt aided the victims of the airliner crash. Like all good ships the Lanahrone would eventually meet an undignified ending. She was broken up in Lieve Leakerland, Holland in 1959, but her legend and stories will remain with those who sailed on her and those whose lives were saved by her.
Ruth Rowland Nichols continued her humanitarian work and in the 1950s worked for such causes as Save the Children and the United Hospital Fund. In 1958, at the age of 57 she co-piloted a US Air Force supersonic fighter jet at 1000 miles per hour and an altitude of 51,000 feet setting a new woman’s speed and altitude record. In 1959, ten years after crash landing in Galway Bay, Ruth Nichols underwent Astronaut training at the Wright Air Development Centre in Ohio. While she did not pass the tests she paved the way for future female astronauts to be included in space programs. Suffering from depression, Ruth Nichols, the famed Aviatrix died in 1960 from an overdose of barbiturates. She was posthumously inducted in the Aviation Hall of Fame in 1992.
I would like to thank Vicky Rea at the BT Archives in London for helping with the radio log which really opened up this story. I offer my sincere appreciation to Captains Jeff Hill, Bill Kirschner, Dianne Marks, Lyle Bobzin, Jon Proctor, Bob Willcuts and their colleagues from the ‘Tarpa Topic’ which is the magazine of the TWA. I also thank those on the Ships Nostalgia forum for their interest in the story especially those who knew the Stalberg and the Lanahrone. Many useful facts were taken from Michael Wallings excellent book and Gordon Sheffers interview. Both are referenced below and well worth a read. Thanks to Joan G. Lee who provided the bridge photo of the Stalberg. Her grandfather Alfred Evans had been a skipper on Stalberg in her early days. Final thanks go to Dr Timoney for proof reading the article
- Arbuthnot, Arbie. Tarpa Topics, June 1984.
- Aviation Safety Network, http://aviation-safety.net/database/record.php?id=19490815-0
- British Movietone News, August 18th, 1949
- BT Heritage and Archives, Post Office Magazine article (Vol. 10, October 1949)
- BT Heritage and Archives, Valentia coastguard radio transcripts
- Caledon Built Dundee Ships. http://www.fdca.org.uk/pdf%20files/Caledon%20L.pdf
- Foreign Aircraft Landings, Ireland. http://www.csn.ul.ie/~dan/war/42-97747.htm
- Frank Forde (Captain). The Cruel Sea, An Cosantoir magazine, January 1980
- Geneva NY Daily Times, August 15th, 1949
- Geneva NY Daily Times, August 16th, 1949
- South Wales Evening Post, 25th March, 2014.
- The Southern Star, 27th May 2006. http://www.irishidentity.com/stories/gowlanecrash.htm
- The Mercury Newspaper, 5th February 1946 (Lanahrone assists the Submarine Universal)
- TWA Skyliner, August 18th 1949
- Walling, Micheal, G. In the Event of a Water Landing, 2010. ISBN-10: 0982855303, Cutter Publishing.
- Winters, Tom. Captain Joseph Reynolds: A Termonfeckin seaman with an active role in the Second World War, by. http://www.termonfeckinhistory.ie/captain_joseph_reynolds_37.html